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Whoever Designed this Language should be Fired!

Many students come into the classroom assuming that the English language is perfected, logical, and refined, and that the prose they produce and the ways they speak outside of the classroom are flawed, illogical and inferior. But anyone who’s studied language rigorously knows that there’s nothing particularly special about English (except it’s an international language that lots of people happen to speak). As teachers, when we shatter the myth of English’s perfection, logic, and refinement, students stop feeling so intimidated and they feel like there’s nothing wrong with them just because they’re struggling with it. Also, it gives students a chance to laugh!

In English, as with any language, there are many parts of the language that don’t make logical sense if you think about them systematically. Take for instance, three separate issues–plurals, possessives, and subject-verb agreement.

The third-person, singular, present tense ending on verbs looks like this:

1. He walks.

The regular plural ending looks like this:

2. The boys came home.

And the possessive ending looks like this:

3. Mike’s house is over there.

Consider what happens in the fourth case, when a noun is both plural and possessive:

4. The boys’ houses are over there.

Let’s step back and consider the staggering level of illogic here.

We should note first that all four are typically pronounced exactly alike, in spite of the spelling differences.

In terms of the spelling and punctuation, all four are nearly identical, but not fully. The subtle difference is often overlooked by students when they write. The third-person, singular, present tense ending on verbs is spelled identically to the regular plural ending, while the possessive ending requires an apostrophe, which is silent. #1 and #2 are identical to one another, while #3 and #4 are transpositions of one another.

Now consider the meaning of each. In terms of the meaning, they couldn’t be more different.

If you were an omnipotent power designing a logical language from scratch, why on earth would you do things like this? Each distinct component of meaning (plural, possessive, or present tense) should be distinct from the other two in its spelling and in its pronunciation. At the same time, you’d expect that one set of endings would attach to the end of verbs, while a completely different set would attach to the end of nouns, to avoid confusion. And you’d expect that two things that sound alike would be spelled exactly alike (including the apostrophes). But thanks to the historical winds through which English has drifted, we are left with something that’s wildly confusing.

How does this relate to teaching? The student writers I teach struggle with correctness when it comes to the plural, possessive, and verb-agreement endings. They leave them off, they mix them up, and they guess randomly about how to end their words. And given how confusing it is, who can blame them?

In my classes, I sometimes walk my students through the reasoning above, explaining the difference between the four endings. Ostensibly, my goal is to get them to distinguish between the four endings when they proofread. As I do it, my tone becomes increasingly exasperated at the illogic. Finally, I throw my arms in the air and declare “whoever designed this language should be fired!”[1]

My students always get a laugh out of this performance, which is another of my goals. Maybe they’re relieved that the source of one of their writing struggles lies outside of them, and maybe they’re glad to see the mischievous creator of the English language being chewed out. Whatever the case, it puts them in a more relaxed mood, and more relaxed students are in a better position to learn.


[1] This whole act is pretty similar to one I witnessed from one of my more brilliant undergraduate professors in Linguistics.

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